Danger Zone It was too dark and very late; I was in trouble. Driving my rental car with very little gas near midnight in Jerusalem was frightening. Terrifying shadows cloaked the city; I couldn’t see any landmark I recognized. After a long day, I was weary and, as long as I could not find my way back to my B ‘n B, homeless.
I slowed down in case some place to turn off looked familiar. An obnoxious horn sounded behind me. Distressed and frustrated from having spent thirty minutes in an impenetrable maze, I stuck my hand out of my window and flashed the bird at the vehicle that had honked behind me.
Seconds later, a full-sized SUV, carrying three battle ready Israeli police in soldiers’ gear, pulled alongside.
“Why did you do what you just did?” asked the man in the passenger side front seat. He was not amused.
Neither was I. Navigating Jerusalem was not for the faint-hearted. Signs had been unreliable and too scarce. Frustrated as I was, I answered, “It got your attention, didn’t it?”
Instantly displeased, the officer ordered me to pull over.
“Passport and driver’s license,” he demanded.
I gave both to him. He handed them to the driver who entered my data into a dashboard computer. I noticed the metal grate on the windshield. Four or five long minutes passed.
Because I knew there was nothing for them to find, I was not contrite when he returned my documents and said I was O.K. to go.
“But I’m lost,” I responded. I told him where I was trying to get to, that it was near the central bus station.
He shrugged, said he didn’t know how to get there either. I was not surprised. But I didn’t move. I was determined that these three men were going to help me get where I needed to go. They conferred.
More personable, the lead man pointed down the wide highway. “Take the second exit and turn left.” Then he made a motion with his hand that, I found out later, was meant to inform me that his directions would only serve to get me generally closer to where I needed to be. Not knowing that, I thanked him and apologized for what I had done. My response was premature. Had I anticipated what happened next, I would have insisted that the three men lead me to where I had to go before I issued my apology.
But I didn’t. Instead, I took the turns they recommended and felt good about seeing lights from downtown getting closer. However, as I followed a curvy road I’d never seen before, I realized I was going deeper into Arab (or Muslim) East Jerusalem. Rather than being on a highway to nowhere, I was in territory known to be unfriendly to Jews.
Fortunately, I saw a neon sign on a small two or three story building; in red, it read, Ritz Hotel. One man was washing the foyer’s marble floor; another was behind the reception counter. I parked and went in, ready, if need be, to rent a room.
“I’m lost,” I told the man behind the counter. “Can you help me?” He asked whether I had a map. I retrieved it from my back pocket.
“Here we are,” he said, as he marked an X in what appeared to be an unfamiliar trail with no intersections or straight lines. “You can go this way,” he said, as he drew a squiggly line, “but…” He shook his head.
“Damn Jews,” he said. “They shut down the roads for the Sabbath. Jews make it hard for everyone.”
Knowing that he didn’t think I was Jewish, I bit my tongue. Straight lines and a reliable grid had probably been on the wish lists of Jerusalem’s city planners for thousands of years. Besides that, I’d found that the Arab/Muslim sector was even more difficult to navigate than my side of Jerusalem. I knew I needed a guide to escape.
“There’s a taxi,” said the man behind the counter when he understood how dubious I was. “Go ask him.”
I did. He spoke little English, only understood I needed a cab. He handed me his phone. “Boss,” he said, as he pointed to the phone.
We spoke. I told him I wanted to follow his cab to my hotel. Boss spoke to the driver. Driver nodded. I told him again that I would follow him. He shrugged, handed the phone back to me. I continued my conversation with his boss.
“I see!” said the Boss. He understood, but the test was making the driver understand. He did. The driver motioned for me to follow him. For about ten minutes, I did. We turned on to my street. There was the gate to my #2 Allenby! Without a protest, I paid the man $31, an amount that most who knew Jerusalem would have deemed outrageous. But, by paying it, I bought a good end to a hard night.
In Jerusalem, such happy endings are priceless. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. Indeed, just a few days ago, I read an article by Dr. Barry Rubin that helped put my perilous journey in perspective. Compared to what Dr. Rubin has encountered, I saw that my twists and turns could have been endless.
Posted: 12 Apr 2013 06:54 AM PDT
Snapshots: Personal Experiences of the Real Middle East
By Barry Rubin
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